Disability Rights NC Uncovers Disability Discrimination Trend in Law Enforcement

An institution will pay $110,000 to settle a discrimination complaint filed by a police officer forced to undergo an illegal medical examination to maintain her job. The employee, a US veteran, served as a police officer for 15 years before the institution learned she received mental health compensation from the VA. Despite high performance marks, she was immediately placed on administrative leave and threatened with termination unless she submitted to and passed a mental fitness examination.

This is the second settlement Disability Rights NC (DRNC) has negotiated in recent months involving claims that a law enforcement department discriminated against an officer with a disability. In the first case, a new commander forced an officer with a lower back condition to wear a utility belt that exacerbated his disability. The officer had alternatively worn a utility vest for the previous five years without issue.

“I am concerned that there is a cultural issue within law enforcement, not just around how departments treat people with disabilities in the general public, but how they treat their very own officers with disabilities,” said Chris Hodgson, a DRNC staff attorney representing plaintiffs in these cases. “These types of cases are not accidental. There is a need for law enforcement administration to stop treating disability as a weakness and an automatic threat to public safety. These two officers collectively had over 35 years of experience, yet their careers were interrupted and jeopardized due to unfounded fears and assumptions about disability that had nothing to do with job performance.”

DRNC is currently considering legal representation of a third officer who was transferred from day shift to night shift, despite having an eye condition that prevents the officer from driving at night.

In addition to paying the $110,000 settlement, the institution agreed to review its medical examination and inquiry policies to ensure they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These policies affect thousands of employees in several states, including law enforcement officers. The settlement agreement requires that the name of the plaintiff and institution be kept confidential, but does allow the plaintiff to be quoted with a pseudonym, Angela Davies.

“Stigma about mental health is very real, at least in certain law enforcement agencies,” Davies said. “I had a sergeant tell me not to mention mental health around here.” Davies fears ignoring reality could actually cause harm to individuals who need treatment but who won’t seek help for fear of being fired. “I should be able to stand up and say, ‘I’ve experienced depression and know what it’s like. Let me help you – here are some resources for you,’ and not hide it like an ostrich with their head in the sand. If you really value your employees as assets, then as employers you should want to help.”

In the case involving the utility vest, Marc Gonzalez, an officer with the Greensboro Police Department, was placed on administrative leave and almost terminated because he carried police equipment on a vest instead of a belt. He wore this vest because of a degenerative back condition that had been worsened by years of wearing the duty belt as a police officer.

Ultimately, the City of Greensboro promoted him to another position that didn’t require him to wear a duty belt in order to resolve the discrimination complaint.

“There are necessary protocols and rules that need to be followed in law enforcement.” Hodgson said. “But there are also trivial rules, like wearing a belt instead of a vest to carry equipment. Discrimination arises when departments cling to non-vital practices over the welfare of their officers with disabilities. Even in this case, while the result was positive for Mr. Gonzalez, the Greensboro Police Department worked around needing to make accommodations for its duty-belt rule by promoting Mr. Gonzales to a new position.”

The use of duty vests as alternatives to duty belts is gaining traction among law enforcement agencies nationwide following a 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in partnership with the Eau Claire Police Department. Using volunteers from the police department in the study, researchers reported “dramatic” results in reducing hip and lower back pain related to the weight of the duty belts. As a result, the Eau Claire Police Department decided to transition all its officers to duty vests, and police departments across the country reached out to the researchers to learn more.

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About Disability Rights North Carolina

Disability Rights North Carolina is the federally mandated protection and advocacy system in North Carolina, dedicated to advancing the rights of all people with disabilities, of all ages, statewide. DRNC is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a member of the National Disability Rights

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